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Friday, April 16, 2021

Jews get ‘Chai’ at cannabis Havdalah

Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

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Eitan Arom
Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

Sporting a black hat and a long, black beard in a Sherman Oaks backyard, Alex Klein raised the Havdalah spices to his nose to consecrate the passage from Shabbat into a new week. Taking a whiff, he let out a whoop: The small silver container held a pungent helping of cannabis.

Klein led the blessings for “Chai Havdalah,” a cannabis soiree signaling an increasing openness toward the plant in the Jewish community and beyond. For the cost of a $36 ticket, guests sampled catered courses of cannabis-infused cuisine and tested the wares of weed entrepreneurs, all the while passing around as much pot as they could smoke.

When Klein and his wife, Shifra, arrived at about 9:30 p.m. July 8, the party was in full swing, enveloped in a pungent cloud. Unlike the mostly nonobservant Jewish attendees, the pair, Chabad devotees, were late because they needed to wait to turn on their phone and get in a car — and, of course, to use a lighter.

“You know what I’ve been doing on the way over here,” Klein joked over the PA system as he worked the crowd during the Havdalah service.

As soon as the Kleins extinguished the ritual candle in a saucer of wine to conclude the rites, a softcore reggae band picked up where it had left off, moving harmoniously from a Jewish hymn, “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” to the stoner classic “Pass the Dutchie.” Meanwhile, guests picked at platters of pastries provided by the Kleins, who together run Mitzva Herbal Co., which touts Orthodox Union certification. A party subcontractor, Venice, Calif.-based WeedBar LA, used electronic bongs to serve up concentrated marijuana.

The event exists in a legal gray area, according to Catherine Goldberg, the marijuana marketer and entrepreneur who organized the event. All cannabis products used were donated by growers and producers, so guests only paid for the music, snacks and atmosphere.

“People are welcome to come and consume whatever they want, but there’s no financial transaction,” Goldberg said.

She decided to host the event after moving to Los Angeles about a year ago and attending a number of weed gatherings. Simultaneously, she started to notice a profusion of Jews in the weed industry.

“Jewish people are anxious and weed helps with anxiety,” she said. “I knew it just went together perfectly.”

Goldberg, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue in Miami, said she’d attended only one Havdalah service before, but felt the event would be a good chance to bring together Jewish cannabis enthusiasts and showcase local entrepreneurs like the Kleins. She said she plans to host Chai Havdalah on a seasonal basis, and also to launch smaller, more intimate “Chai Shabbat” events for Friday evenings.

With tickets available on Eventbrite.com, many of the 50 or so guests who attended Chai Havadalah found it online, or otherwise through the local cannabis community, and came to network or to let loose.

Maddy Le Mel, a 75-year-old Jewish mixed-media artist whose work appears in galleries around Los Angeles, came with two Jewish friends, also 75.

Le Mel said that when she started smoking cannabis 40 years ago she couldn’t have imagined one day attending a publicly advertised event where consenting adults came together to get legally stoned. “Never thought it was going to happen,” she said.

She found the party to be a welcome reprieve from her home life, where she deals with her husband’s dementia and other family struggles.

“These girls were like, ‘Let’s just bust out!’ ” Le Mel said. “I just want a really light, fun time, because my life is heavy.”

One of her friends, who also has a husband with dementia, chimed in solemnly: “My husband does not know I’m here.”

“This a very odd experience,” added the third woman.

Both of Le Mel’s friends declined to give their names, worried it could impact their licenses to practice as psychotherapists. Each started smoking within the past year to relieve chronic pain.

The evening’s chef, Holden Jagger, said the party was the first legal Jewish cannabis event he was aware of. He prepared two weed-infused loaves of challah and spiked chocolate baba ghanoush, along with non-psychoactive brisket, latkes and double-fried kugel.

Jagger, 33, a graduate of a local Jewish day school, the Wise School, co-founded a cannabis catering service, Altered Plates, with his sister Rachel after leaving a more conventional culinary career that included a stint as the pastry chef of Soho House in West Hollywood. Before the switch, he worked under the name Holden Burkons; he now uses his middle name as his last.

During his journey into the world of cooking with cannabis, Jagger has come across a good number of Jews — although never before gathered to partake in a Jewish ritual. He hoped to cater other such events in the future.

“I’m excited to do more,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s a lot of Jews in the cannabis industry. We tend to like cannabis quite a bit.”

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